[Love + Freedom] Is the Golden Way

Column by Glen Allport. 

Exclusive to STR

( Liberty plus Non-Political Support for Compassion )

1 –

The Yearning for a Compassionate World

Most people clearly want a more compassionate world; I certainly do. We differ on how to get there. Many mistake their own sense of compassion as an argument in favor of political movements that claim to foster society-wide compassion or fairness by force. The huge worldwide followings of Marxism, socialism, "leftist" American politics, GW Bush's "compassionate conservatism," and various other flavors of "compassionate" tyranny are ample proof. For over a century, compassion has been used to falsely justify government coercion. Psychopaths and intelligent sociopaths run the world because they have learned to manipulate the compassion felt by the rest of us.

The results have not been good. Tens of millions died in the wars of the 20th Century (Wikipedia says there were 50 million to 85 million fatalities in WWII, for example), and in addition to that death toll, 262 million people were simply murdered by (usually) their own governments in the 20th Century – including 80 million to 100 million by Communist governments. Many more died from so-called regulation ("regulation" actually being government and corporatist control), including terminal patients forcibly denied treatments known to be safe and effective but not "approved" by the FDA despite, in many cases, wide use with positive results in other countries. Then there are coercive programs like the War on Drugs claiming compassionate goals but achieving only the opposite: blighted and ruined lives, orphaned children, widespread corruption, and escalating numbers of dead.

All that cruelty and carnage have not been enough to end the foolhardy belief in coercive government as an agent of compassion. The commonly-unmet need for a caring parent is strong and pervasive; people will do or believe almost anything to meet that need, even when the time for its possible fulfillment has long past. In addition, there is a natural, healthy desire for brotherhood, compassion, and fair treatment in life.

How to bring a compassionate world into being? Star Trek's Captain Pickard merely says "Make it so!" to an underling, and the thing is done. Perhaps a Compassionate Leader can create a compassionate society in the same manner, if only we vote the right politician into office. Surely we have enough bureaucrats and armed enforcers to carry out the Supreme Leader's will. The Decider speaks and the job gets done. Forcible government solves all problems the easy way – at gunpoint – so how could it fail? At least, that's what many people seem to think, despite all experience to the contrary.

Clearly, feelings and unmet needs are more powerful than reason. Reason can help – rational thought is not entirely useless here – but feelings are deeper, more ancient, and far more persuasive than is thought. Thinking is hard work; feelings are automatic.

Even many libertarians fail to understand that "coercion for a good cause" is not the answer. For example, the Wikipedia article on "libertarianism" lists 27 [!] schools of libertarian thought. Not all of those involve attempting to politically (i.e., coercively) add compassion to libertarianism, but some do, and a question arises: what else, politically, might be added to liberty that does not carry the taint of aggression, however cleverly justified and applied? What can be added, politically, to liberty without destroying or corrupting liberty itself?

The answer is clearly "nothing," which is why I am an abolitionist. Politics is aggression: Politics means scheming to control the State's coercive power, and then using coercion once power has been seized. Adding political aggression of any sort to pure liberty can only begin the process of tyranny. That is why things are done politically in the first place: to add aggression, to use coercion, to force every politicized issue – at gunpoint if necessary. Soon enough, the guns come out.

Still, something important and positive IS missing from liberty, and people everywhere are searching for this missing quality – and for a way to bring more of it, love or compassion or fairness or however they think of it, into the world. Most of the confusion, including much within the liberty movement, comes from an error of category: The missing ingredient is not in the realm of politics at all.

2 –

Yin and Yang

Love and freedom are yin and yang in human life. Love is an expression of our connection to others, of our fundamental sameness and kinship, while freedom is necessary because we are each different from all others, each genetically and experientially unique, each with our own preferences and skills and desires.

We are different yet the same; connected yet following our own path; separate yet part of the whole human race, indeed part of all life on this Earth, which shares a common genetic language and many physical needs and desires.

Equally important but rooted in different realms, love and freedom are complimentary in human life and indeed are mutually dependent. Unfree societies do not foster love, because coercion is itself a form of unlove; coercion denies the person being coerced his or her own chosen path. Likewise, cold, unloving societies are not safe places for liberty, because the sense of connection with others, of empathy and compassion for others, is necessary support for honest market activity and for human actions (charity, individual kindness, deep friendship, and other healthy interaction) that the market does not involve itself in. Without sufficient emotional health – that is, in a society of neurotics, sociopaths, and psychopaths – liberty is relentlessly subverted by those without a clear sense of empathy and connection to their fellow human beings.

3 –

Regulating Action vs. Nurturing Emotional Health

Liberty is about actions – specifically about not committing or allowing others to commit the crime of initiated coercion. That means liberty must be enforced and defended – by defensive coercion if necessary, but also by philosophical and other means; by fostering understanding of the issue, by supporting non-political methods of dispute resolution, of business regulation, and so on.

If liberty is about actions, love and compassion are about feeling – which is to say they are about emotional health. If you believe coercion is useful here, imagine pointing a gun at someone and telling them to love you, or else. Coercion is the opposite of love; it is unlove, anti-love. More love is desperately needed in this world, and coercion is exactly the wrong way to approach the issue.

In short, the coercive State does not foster compassion; it undermines and destroys compassion. Police states are not good places for nurturing emotional health. Slavery and oppression do not make people happy and generous. These things should be obvious, but clearly, not everyone understands the dynamic here.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for people is this: The Captain Pickard "Make it so!" method appeals to our desire to solve the problem right now, directly and simply – yet is completely unsuitable for creating love or compassion. People want instant gratification, they want the world fixed immediately, they expect results this week or at least during the President's first term. But by supporting political approaches to the problem, people are making the problem worse. More coercion = less love and compassion, every time. This is only partly due to the inefficiency and poor results of centralized command and control compared to decentralized market action. It is also because initiated coercion is evil, and evil can never be a net benefit to love. Using coercion to increase love or compassion is no different from using coercion to increase the number of your sex partners. Sex is wonderful, but adding coercion to sex creates something very different from what you get when people are interacting freely.

So, what WILL work to increase love, compassion, and emotional health generally in a society?

4 –

Sensitive Dependence on Early Conditions

If force – coercion by the State in particular – is not the path to a more loving world, what is? The answer is simple: A more compassionate world requires widespread understanding that the young (pregnant mothers, newborns, infants, and children) must be treated with compassion and respect. Love and respect early in life creates loving adults who respect the rights and needs of others. Love early in life does what political coercion never can.

It is well-known in the sciences that complex and evolving systems show sensitive dependence on initial conditions, although it makes more sense to say "early" conditions, given that large changes usually obtain even if inputs are applied later in the growth of the system. (For instance, the weather is a common example of this effect – the "Butterfly effect" is named for the fanciful example of a tornado being caused by a butterfly flapping its wings halfway around the world – but where, exactly, is the "initial condition" of the weather?). In any case, a small change early in the evolution of a system such as a zygote will typically cause a large and growing difference as time goes on. Predicting exactly how things will change is often not possible, but change itself from a shift in early conditions is very predictable.

This dynamic of sensitive dependence on early conditions is well documented in human life and has been acknowledged for centuries. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." "The child is father to the man." A Caucasian child from Spain will grow up to speak Mandarin if raised in certain parts of China; a young girl from Iraq who may have been headed for a career in teaching or science may become a prostitute to survive (or by force) when driven from her homeland by forces unleashed in war. What happens early in our lives, good and bad, adjusts our path in ways that cannot be forecast precisely. Will the pain of being beaten regularly in childhood lead to bullying behavior, or to a protective feeling towards the weak and perhaps to efforts to reduce corporal punishment and other cruelty to children – or to something else, such as heavy drug use or suicide? Or to some combination of behaviors and traits we might not even think of?

On the other hand, statistical trends in response to certain types of input can be highly predictable. To say it again, children treated with love and respect typically grow into loving adults who respect others; they are empathic, compassionate, and largely free of inner demons and self-destructive behavior. As adults, such children show fewer signs and symptoms of misery; they are less likely to commit violent crimes; they are less likely to drink heavily or to use other drugs to excess; less likely to attempt suicide; less likely to smoke tobacco or to develop cancers, heart disease, and other diseases caused by smoking or drinking or other harmful habits. One of the most concise and persuasive bits of evidence for this self-evident idea – that loving, respectful treatment in childhood creates happy, loving, and respectful adults – is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study performed with the help of 17,421 adults at a Kaiser Permanente HMO in San Diego, California. I highly recommend The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead, an engaging seven-page PDF summary of the study, including charts for some of the stunning data. Other good sources on the topic of sensitive dependence on early conditions in human life include Alice Miller's classic For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence and Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley.

There is reason to believe that even those with psychopathic brain patterns can be reasonably well-adjusted and mostly harmless to their fellow human beings if, and perhaps ONLY if, the psychopaths grow up in a loving atmosphere.

In The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, James Fallon recounts his discovery, after a brain scan, that he has the brain patterns of a psychopath – despite leading a fairly normal life with a wife, children, and a solid professional career: he is professor emeritus of anatomy and neurobiology and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine. Parts of Fallon's brain that would help create empathy and other feeling are "dark" or silent (or largely so); this neurological condition is associated with manipulative, cruel, or even murderous behavior. Fallon believes he is not the nightmare he might have become because he had an affectionate, loving childhood; because he has a loving wife and children; and because he has spent time studying the libertarian philosophy, which teaches respect for the rights of others.

There are two other resources I will mention here: the English boarding school Summerhill, founded in 1921, and Sudbury Valley School in America, a day school that is otherwise modeled on Summerhill. Wikipedia says "Summerhill is noted for its philosophy that children learn best with freedom from coercion. All lessons are optional, and pupils are free to choose what to do with their time. Neill founded Summerhill with the belief that 'the function of a child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.'" Also worth mentioning is that children have essentially the same rights as adults and are held to the same responsibility to respect the rights of others. Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, with writings by school founder A. S. Neill arranged by former pupil Albert Lamb, is a terrific introduction to the School and to Neill's philosophy and practice. Many of the essays here are from the 1960 four-million copy bestseller Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing.

Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Greenberg and his staff and students have produced a number of excellent books about the Sudbury school (I am especially fond of Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School). These schools are so different from the grim and coercive schooling most of us suffered through that reading about Summerhill and Sudbury can be a powerfully emotional experience; the books linked above provide a dramatically uplifting visit to a world more in harmony with human needs and desires than the world we live in now.

The life-long benefits of love and freedom for children is not mere theory. For example, below are five points taken from the report by H. M. Inspectors on the Summerhill School in 1949 (the full report is available in Neill's original Summerhill) that make this clear (bold added):


"The main principle upon which the School is run is freedom . . . . the degree of freedom allowed to the children is very much greater than the inspectors had seen in any other school and the freedom is real. No child, for instance, is obliged to attend any lessons. As will be revealed later, the majority do attend for the most part regularly, but one pupil was actually at this School for 13 years without once attending a lesson and is now an expert toolmaker and precision instrument maker. This extreme case is mentioned to show that the freedom given to children is genuine and is not withdrawn as soon as its results become awkward."

"...the children are full of life and zest. Of boredom and apathy there was no sign. An atmosphere of contentment and tolerance pervades the School."

"...the children's manners are delightful. They may lack, here and there, some of the conventions of manners, but their friendliness, ease and naturalness, and their total lack of shyness and self-consciousness made them very easy, pleasant people to get on with."

"...initiative, responsibility and integrity are all encouraged by the system and that so far as such things can be judged, they are in fact being developed."

"Summerhill education is not necessarily hostile to worldly success."


The report backs up that last point with a list of degrees held and careers followed by former pupils.

The question naturally arises: Which would you rather your children experienced – a typical coercive education (State-provided or otherwise), or a situation defined by freedom and respect for all, as at Summerhill? Which type of experience would more reliably create good neighbors, healthy adults, and a generally more free and compassionate world?

Love and Freedom, together, are the only way to improve the human elements of this world – to increase compassion, to expand the level of empathy in society, to improve everything from material prosperity (which freedom does reliably) to physical health (via lower use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and junk food, among other things). Love and freedom, together, are what human beings were made for. If there is a Golden Way in life, it is this: non-political support for love and compassion (including especially the wide understanding of and support for freedom, respect, and affection for children) combined with the resolve to protect everyone from initiated coercion – and especially from systematic initiated coercion, which is to say from the coercive State.

Love and freedom, or their opposites: that is the choice we face.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.


Mark Davis's picture

Excellent, as always, Glen.  The short time preference that most people develop under the influence of primary education providers growing up today is a reinforcing mechanism that goes hand-in-hand with adult sympathies for the use coercion; this cycle of abuse will be difficult to overcome.  Patience, longer time preferences and opposition to the use of coercion are learned behaviors from early childhood that must be promoted by adults if we are to spread love and compassion and eliminate institutionalized coercion.  Again, well said, Glen.

Glen Allport's picture

Thanks, Mark. Yes, it does seem easier to move things in the wrong direction than to move them back in a healthy direction after corruption, coercion, and neurosis have become entrenched. It is encouraging to me that loving and respectful treatment, even of [young] problem children (many early Summerhill pupils had been expelled from other schools) and of psychopaths [starting at birth], pretty reliably creates empathic adults with integrity. Fixing damage after it has been done is almost impossible in the case of psychopaths and is very hard even in the case of fairly normal neurotics.